Many of us will remember those gripping and tense five days in November 2010 when the world waited to hear the fate of the 29 men trapped underground at Pike River coal mine in the north of New Zealand’s South Island. Just three months prior in August 2010, 33 miners were successfully rescued from an underground mine in Chile after 69 days trapped beneath the surface, captivating and amazing the world at what can be achieved with dogged determination in often dangerous and difficult circumstances. This same memory no doubt kept many of the families of the Pike River 29 – as they came to be known – alive with hope that they would see their loved ones re-emerge, buoyed by the knowledge two miners were able to walk out only hours after the initial explosion occurred. Little did they know that the underground environments of the two disasters were like chalk and cheese – the Chilean entrapment was in a hard rock mine, with strong, competent rock that allowed for rescue shafts to be sunk and the mine to remain relatively stable during the rescue.
At Pike River, a gassy coal mine deep in the Paparoa Ranges east of Greymouth, the opposite was in fact the case – the level of methane gas in the mine, exposed as a result of various mining and exploration activities, regularly exceeded safe levels. The mine also straddled a major geological fault that called for innovative engineering solutions, not to mention presenting dangerous working conditions. Added to this, the mine had only one point of egress – the main access drive from the portal to the major workings some 2.3 kms away – which was severely damaged in the initial blast. An emergency egress ladder fitted to a 111m deep ventilation shaft was practically unusable in normal conditions, let alone in times of an emergency when miners are suffering breathing difficulties and carrying life-saving equipment. Having worked underground myself, even I understand that having two points of egress is a mandatory, minimum design requirement. Not in New Zealand.
Rebecca Macfie’s book, Tragedy at Pike River Mine, is a masterful example of investigative journalism of a situation that was cursed from the start. Taking information, transcripts, interviews and conversations from various sources, Macfie pieces together a collage of Pike River; a tragic story for which the die had been cast well before the mine was started. A litany of errors, poor decisions and inappropriate engineering decisions years before lead to what culminated over those five days in November 2010. Many times throughout the book I had to put it down as I seethed with anger over some of the decisions made by people who clearly didn’t have the health and safety of future workers at the forefront of their mind. The usual story of production over safety, coupled with growing debt as targets kept slipping and no coal to market, lead to enormous pressure on many of the workers and middle management, many of whom wanted to see Pike River succeed. This pressure was so great that over a 2-year period, 5 people held the role of statutory mine manager, some of whom were not qualified to hold the position.
Every miner, be they of the open pit or underground type, should read this book. At the heart of the story is a compelling justification for the strict regulatory controls that govern mining, why they are required, and how they can save lives. Australia has various regulatory controls, and in states like Queensland and Western Australia many complain they are too restrictive. In the case of New Zealand, these controls had been deregulated some decades before and many may argue had they still been in place along with sufficient regulatory clout, the Pike River 29 may still be alive today.
Regardless of who you think is to blame and who should be paying the price of their mistakes, Tragedy at Pike River Mine will have you engaged and enraged, often both at the same time. If you only get time to read a few books a year, this has to be one of them. 5 out of 5 stars.